The psychology behind Over-apologizing
Some people tend to apologise for the minutest of errors. “Sorry for not getting back to you earlier.” “Sorry if this doesn’t make sense.” “Sorry, I’m taking too much of your time.” These are some of the common things they may say. Their habit might be so ingrained, that they may even utter an apology to inanimate objects they accidentally bumped into.
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Humans are social animals, and our behaviour is interdependent. We apologise to others when we have wronged them in some way, hurt them, or betrayed their trust. The objective of apologies is to restore the relationship by rebuilding trust and avoiding conflict. Moreover, apologies can validate the feelings of the person who has been wronged and reassure them that the wrongdoer will not repeat their mistake.
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However, chronic apologising is another deal. Someone who repeatedly apologises for small mistakes and things beyond their control may be indicative of a larger issue. Let’s look at the reasons why people apologise.
Reasons behind over-apologising:
- Want to be liked: Again, as social beings, all of us look for approval from others and want to be popular among our peers. Research has shown that apologising and acknowledging our mistakes improves our likeability. Thus, some people apologise too much because they crave social acceptance.
- False Sense of Guilt: Sometimes, over-apologising is caused by people feeling guilty of offending another person, despite them not being at fault. Research indicates that women tend to apologise more than men. This is because women generally have a lower threshold for what they consider as offensive behaviour.
- Perfectionism: Perfectionists have high and almost unattainable expectations of themselves. Thus, when they fail to meet those standards, they feel the need to apologise to others even though they are not impacted. There is a fear of rejection or criticism, and apologising is a way of avoiding that.
- Coping mechanism: If a person has grown up in a home where slight conflict resulted in huge fights, screaming at one another, or even physical violence, they may develop the response of over-apologising as a way to avoid conflict. It may also be a trauma response to experiencing conflict resulting in another person giving the wrongdoer the cold shoulder. A person who has witnessed this repeatedly might develop a fear of abandonment, and apologise excessively. Over-apologising, in such a case, acts as an internalised coping mechanism used to prevent any negative consequences.
- Safety Manoeuvre: Also stemming from childhood experiences of abuse or even experiences in adulthood of abusive relationships, excessive apologising is sometimes used by people to protect themselves from violence in a relationship. If a person has had a parent or a partner who lashed out at them for minor mistakes, they may develop a learned response of apologising before a situation escalates. This behaviour may continue even when they are no longer in an abusive situation.
- Low Self-Esteem: Self-esteem issues, whether developed due to childhood trauma or later experiences, can also result in a habit of chronic apologising. People with low self-esteem feel unworthy and believe they are the root cause of all negative things happening around them. They tend to have poor boundaries, feel like they are a burden on others, and prioritise the needs of others over their own. This encourages them to engage in over-apologising.
- Social Anxiety: People with social anxiety may experience the ‘Spotlight Effect’. This refers to the extreme self-consciousness experienced by people who come to believe that all their mistakes are being closely observed by those around them. In such a case, over-apologising becomes a way through which one manages fear and nervousness.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Another mental health issue apart from anxiety which may lead to a person being over-apologetic is OCD. People with OCD may sometimes be overly concerned about harming others unintentionally, and thus apologise excessively as a means to undo the harm they have caused. Let’s look at how we can stop over-apologising, and replace those apologies with healthier behaviours.
How to Stop Over-Apologising?
If you are someone who tends to apologise unnecessarily, the following recommendations may come in handy to you:
1. Be careful about your Language:
The next time you are about to apologise for some action that may have slightly inconvenienced another person, try to change your language to one that does not indicate an apologetic tone. For example, instead of saying “Sorry to have made you wait for me”, say “Thank you for your patience” and instead of saying “I’m sorry to bother you”, say “Thank you for your time”.. Or, when you accidentally bump into someone, instead of saying sorry, simply say “Excuse me”.
2. Assess if the situation requires an apology:
Before apologising, it is a good idea to take a step back and check if the magnitude of the inconvenience matches with the apology you are about to make. In some situations, it is not required to apologise: When presenting a perspective or opinion that is different from another person, upon being unable to make it to an event due to prior commitments, or when you need to ask a question or clarify a doubt in class. Some situations that do require an apology are when you forget to complete a task when you make a miscalculation, or when you are inattentive or rude.
3. Remind yourself it’s Okay to take up Space:
If your habit of over-apologising is a trauma response, it may help to give yourself reminders that you are no longer in an abusive environment, and your needs are valid. It is helpful to have supportive peers and partners who respect your boundaries. You must also remind yourself that it is not your responsibility to manage the emotions of others.
There are no major drawbacks to apologising, and it may strengthen relationships. However, over-apologising may undermine your self-worth and cause excessive guilt. Instead of displaying yourself as a nice and caring person, you may come off as under-confident. Your apologies might also lose meaning and sincerity if you do it too frequently. We have seen some of how you can prevent yourselves from engaging in over-apologising, but you must also remember that it is a strong habit that is difficult to get rid of. Don’t be hard on yourself for slow progress, and just be mindful of how you treat yourself!